A Larger, Mysterious Logic: An Interview with Composer Tonia Ko

This Friday, October 5th, we bring you Tonia Ko’s Plain, Air…a riveting encounter with the Lake Michigan shoreline ecology that received its world premiere just three weeks ago at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

We’ve fallen head-over-heels for this string-quartet-and-electronics piece, and to this day, we’re fielding exuberant emails and text messages from concertgoers, eager to tell us about their personal reverberations following this unique experience.

Not only are we a little in awe of how immersive her piece sounds in the delicious acoustic of Rockefeller Chapel…we are proud to be presenting what is a bit of a coming-out party for Tonia, who is the new Post-Doctoral fellow at UChicago’s Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC).

Because she will be a Chicagoan for the next year, you will be happy to know that Tonia is also fantastic hang. Doyle had a few questions he needed to get answered post haste, about Plain, Air and about Tonia’s process, and we thought we’d share them with you here…enjoy!

  (photo credit: Daniel Kullman)

(photo credit: Daniel Kullman)

Doyle Armbrust: Your work tends to reach outside the idiom of classical or new music. How is your creativity enhanced by opening up these possibilities?

Tonia Ko: My work is strongly rooted in concert music traditions, but I enjoy working with "outside" aspects as musical parameters, like texture, physical movement, or spatialization. For me, this gives the piece an exciting reason to exist, and often leads me to discover new sounds and techniques.

DA: When did you first experiment with music in this way?

TK: I haven't been the same since I became obsessed with bubble wrap about five years ago– I paint on it as a canvas and play it as a friction musical instrument. It really opened up new ways of thinking about what constitutes an instrument or a performance event.

DA: Many of my composer and writer friends do their best work when certain conditions are in place: time of day, level of noise, or amount of available coffee, to name a few. Is there something that must be just so for you to be able to dig in and write, for instance, a 40-minute string quartet?

TK: Before this piece, I would adamantly say: I like being a hermit – I prefer near silence, an open schedule, a stocked fridge, blankets, lots of hot beverages. (Hmm, listing those things you'd think I have the flu or something) But I worked on Plain, Air during several months when I was a nomad– I think spread over five or six different cities! So maybe I'm more flexible than I realize.

DA: My favorite aspect of Plain, Air is the promenade at the beginning, which at the premiere was a nature walk and at Rockefeller will be an immersive, surround-sound experience for the audience. Can you tell me about your expectations (or worries) about how this mobile element of your piece would land?

TK: My goal for the sound walk is to bring attention to the sonic personality of whatever space we're in. At Openlands, it was about the actual lake waves, cicada and bird sounds, while at Rockefeller it should activate the awesome resonance of the hall. The trick is customizing the balance for each space so there is a dialogue between silence, ambient electronic sounds, and musical instrumental sounds.

DA: In what ways is your piece transformed in the grand setting of Rockefeller?

TK: Even though we won't get to experience the full outdoor sound walk, my piece really comes alive acoustically in Rockefeller. Many of the timbral details that I carefully designed for the quartet speak more clearly, and the electronics nicely blend into a unified whole. And because we're in a church, the opening also takes on a more ritualistic and solemn character.

DA: I'm not sure if I'm projecting here, but to me the subtext of Plain, Air is that if we take a moment to listen to the sounds of our environment, we might be more inclined to care for it. Is there any conservationist theme to be found here, or are you purely engaged with sound in this case?

TK: I definitely agree that listening the most genuine act of caring (for anything). Instead of being about environmental problems and/or solutions for them, Plain, Air takes a sonic microscope to the little sounds of an ecosystem– things one might notice on a walk outdoors. I try to show that these unique sounds are connected and share a larger, mysterious logic. So the conservationist perspective in this work is that we can collectively enact a lot of good for the environment when each person cares and listens.  

DA: We are so lucky to have you as a Chicago resident for the next year. Is there anything particular about Chicago or its music scene that made this move enticing?

TK: Spektral Quartet 😍. Well, in addition to you guys, Chicago is just full of wonderful cultural institutions that I'm very excited to explore. Even from the few shows I've been to so far, it's clear that there is a very supportive new music community. And Lake Michigan is amazing! (No comment on pizza or sports...)

DA: And finally, not to get too personal, but if you could take a week off of work and binge or re-binge any tv show, what would it be?

TK: This is really weird, but I often FORGET that I'm watching a tv show. It's happened with the most "binge-able" Netflix series – I just stop six or seven episodes in. If someone can recommend a truly addictive Korean drama, I'll give it a go!

  (photo credit: Daniel Kullman)

(photo credit: Daniel Kullman)